Saturday, January 02, 2010

Master's Dissertation on Buddhism: On the Fifth Precept as Avoiding Heedlessness

สวัสดี ปี ใหม่! Even if you don't read Thai, I think you can guess this annual greeting. :-)

The customary celebrations have been accompanied by the usual over-celebrations with adverse consequences reported in familiar headlines such as Rising alcohol addiction costs 'could cripple the NHS'. So it may be an appropriate time to share some research into the Fifth Precept in Buddhism, which I undertook as part of my Master's in the Study of Religion.

Observing this precept is an undertaking to avoid intoxicants. So what was the original meaning of this precept? How is it interpreted today, particularly in social contexts? Do practitioners from different traditions have the same attitudes or are there variations? I explored these and other issues in my Master's dissertation on Avoiding pamāda: An analysis of the Fifth Precept as Social Protection in Contemporary Contexts with reference to the early Buddhist teachings. The exploration is essentially concerned with just the one Pali word, pamāda, which can be translated as 'heedlessness.'

As with my essays in Christianity, I was being a bit ambitious, perhaps trying to bite off more than I could properly chew. It's commonly known that there are variations, but I'm not aware of research that has shown this empirically. So I've made a little step in this direction by carrying out a survey, looking at people's understanding of the precept in theory and how they put it into practice in particular social scenarios. I wrote this up as a separate piece of work as it was too big to fit into the dissertation (but since all Master's work was marked anonymously, I had to make cryptic references so that the author of the dissertation wasn't made explicit).

I was able to establish with reasonable confidence that there were indeed variations in attitudes among practitioners in different traditions, so how did the variations arise? In my background reading I made use of quite a few Mahāyāna texts, especially those relating to the Bodhisattva ideal. Along the way, Graeme MacQueen's fascinating study of Buddhavacana prompted some reflections. Again, owing to space limitations, I couldn't write much about this in the dissertation, but at least there are some notes that I could write up at a later date.

Just one other observation. Although pamāda is most commonly connected with alcohol and mind-altering drugs, the Buddha indicated a more general scope in his guidance to avoid the intoxicated mind. I found this in the early texts when I came across the compound, jūtappamādaṭṭhānānuyoga, which I've translated as 'gambling, a yoke that is the cause of heedlessness.' I think it's apt to point to this now as I think it is this mentality that has contributed in no small measure to the global financial crisis where trading on the financial markets has been - as far as I can tell - a kind of gambling. The more I explore the texts, the more I see how fundamental heedfulness is to developing one's practice.

I hope the dissertation is interesting and helpful. Any feedback - comments, suggestions, critiques - would be welcome, either by email or as comments to this blog. I think there's a lot more research that could be pursued in this area, especially in relation to physical and mental health.

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